Mr Tarun Tilokani was getting ready to travel to Boston University in the United States to start a master’s degree in business administration (MBA) when the coronavirus pandemic upset his plans.
“I am very eager to go to the US. The thing is, I don’t want to do an MBA online. It would dilute the whole experience,” said Mr Tilokani, 26, who works in sales at a tech start-up.
He is not alone in his dilemma. Uncertainty has spread across the academic world, with educational institutes hit by coronavirus restrictions, travel bans and social distancing norms.
Many US and British universities, among others, have yet to reveal if they will have physical classes or online ones for the term starting in September.
Some colleges have announced online classes and are also allowing students to defer admissions.
“I am getting documentation ready. If they say we are going online, then I will start thinking about whether to defer or not. Everyone is in the same situation; nobody knows what is happening,” Mr Tilokani said.
A major source of foreign students overseas, Indians pursuing higher education abroad number an estimated 1.09 million, according to last July’s figures from the Ministry of External Affairs.
Hundreds of thousands of Indian students opt to study overseas because of tough competition for top-ranked educational institutes in India, or for the opportunity to study and work abroad.
A report by QS I.Gauge, which rates colleges and universities in India, found the pandemic has affected the decisions of 48.46 per cent of students who wanted to study abroad.
It said a larger portion of non-Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) than Stem students have reconsidered their decision.
The report added that “the significantly lower return of investment in an already expensive international higher education domain, coupled with further reduced chances of employability in the post Covid-19 world play a role in changing study patterns”.
Education consultants said they are seeing students opt out of going abroad, although the desire to study overseas remained strong.
Mr Anirudh Gupta, director of Mindways Consulting, an education consultancy in Delhi, said seven out of 10 students he has seen have opted out or deferred their decision until next year.
“Students are keeping it open. People are applying… but no one is committing yet.”
Mr Gupta said inquiries for US colleges, which attract the largest number of Indian students, had also gone down after US President Donald Trump spoke of tightening work visa norms.
“Students will still apply to top universities like Stanford or Harvard, Trump or no Trump. But mid-level schools have taken a massive beating,” Mr Gupta said.
In the US, Indian students are the second-largest source of foreign students, after China.
From 2018 to last year, 202,014 Indian students went to the US, according to the 2019 Open Doors report by the US-based Institute of International Education.
Still, some education consultants maintained that many students were going ahead with plans to study overseas in spite of the Covid-19 situation.
Mr Rajiv Ganjoo, founder of Admitas, a Mumbai-based consultancy, said he is advising those who are nervous to defer their plans. If students are keen on a university in a region affected by the coronavirus, he tells them that “if you have the option from the university, push it to January or summer, or June of next year”.
Professor Tan Ooi Kiang, associate provost (undergraduate education) of Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said: “Interest in NTU’s undergraduate programmes remains strong.”
He said that demand from Indian students had increased by about 5 per cent from last year to this year.
For students, uncertainty also centres around when India will resume international flights, with Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Puri saying that international travel will resume when the situation normalises.
With more than 250,000 cases, India is among the top 10 countries most affected by the coronavirus. The stringent lockdown it imposed in response to the outbreak also adversely impacted the economy, resulting in job losses.
According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, the monthly unemployment rate in May was 23.48 per cent, up from 8.74 per cent in March.
Under these circumstances, Mr Rishab Jain, who is based in Mumbai, believes this is the right time to learn new skills.
“The market is distressed, and there is a shortage of jobs. Most of the companies I have been speaking to or my friends are in have hiring freezes,” said the 26-year-old, who works in the financial technology sector and plans to study at Imperial College Business School in London.
“It is better to upskill yourself with an advanced degree right now.”